Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dialect Dilemma (or I dinna ken fit tae dee)

One of the things I learned when I lived in Scotland was the incredible differences in regional dialects. Just as a New Yorker sounds different than a Californian, a Glaswegian sounds different than an Aberdonian. Really different.

I lived in Peterhead, a fishing town that sticks out into the North Sea, and they speak in a Doric dialect that was unintelligible the first time I heard it. If they didn't want you to understand what they were saying, it was no problem. Combine that with the fact that I worked mainly with youth and teens and you can only imagine some of the texts I used to receive. Fit like? Far r u? (How are you doing? Where are you?)

Keeping that in mind, I knew when I set my novel in Scotland dialect would be a bit sticky. I've heard a lot of writing advice that suggests you don't do it, for several good reasons. But I ignored that advice and had to figure it out for myself. I lived there, I thought, I can handle this. (This is probably when more experienced writers starting laughing.)

The result?

Well, after wrestling with several rounds, here are two reasons why you won't find my novel covered in dinnas, verras, havenas, and the like:

1. It's a mess to read. My readership (hopefully, one day) will mostly be American. I don't want my reader constantly having to Google my dialogue or, worse, hitting a frustration level where they give up on the book altogether. This doesn't mean that my characters need to sound American. There are phrases and words and inflections that can show dialect yet be readable enough to keep the story rolling.

2. It's hard not to make everyone sound like a caricature. Having lived there, I'm sensitive to the fact that regional differences are big, and nailing nuances within the dialects is quite difficult. Every Scottish person does not sound like he or she popped out of the cast of Braveheart. 

What I'm doing now is dropping a few references in the text that hints at the way something sounds, as well as paying attention to speech patterns. I've learned I don't have to phonetically spell every bit of dialect to give the audience a strong sense that a character is a different nationality. Inflection and syntax go a long way.

Anyone else out there work with dialect? How to do you handle it in your characters?


  1. Hi, Muttie (and me) are Scottish - from Glasgow and we know EXACTLY what you mean. Muttie writes dialect sometimes but keeps it to a minimum. Think it's because you spend so long trying to make out what they're saying that you lose the flow of the prose. But then, look at James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. They write solely in dialect!

    Milt x

  2. I agree that just a taste, perhaps a thought about what the words sound like from a speaker of another language/dialect. And then there are the idioms. My son-in-law is from Suffolk, and I can't understand a word he says, and when I do, I don't understand what he means. A very judicious sprinkling of phrases, dialect, etc. -- I'd think cayenne pepper.

  3. Inflection and syntax are, I agree, bread and butter for a dialect writer. Idioms, too, are wonderful tools. A looooong time ago on my blog I wrote a couple of articles on this very topic. May you find a tip or two in them:

  4. Milt/Muttie - Ah, then you KNOW. :) Helman and Welsh definitely nail dialect; it takes a special talent to have that kind of ear (ears?). Hope you get some spring in Glasgow!

    Terry - Idioms! Thank you, I could not think of the word. Love the analogy of cayenne pepper. Just a little dash will do. Family time must be interesting in your house!

    Jason-Thanks for the comment. Appreciated the examples. There's definitely so much you can show about a character with their speech. Great point.

  5. Great post! I ranted along similar lines on my own blog about issues writing teenage characters... How much slang and cursing do I permit? I have teens and know how they talk but just not sure readers want that much realism.

    I hate phonetically spelled dialogue when I read. I'm heading off to check out Jason's idioms now...

  6. Patty, I feel your pain! I've got a college age student in my book, and I wrestle with how he would speak to my main character.

    I've found Facebook to be a rich resource in getting a sense of dialogue and dialect. If you are friends with any teens on there, take a look at their "wall" and read their interactions with their friends. You can glean a lot from that.

  7. Hi, Lisa,

    Excellent advice on using dialect in one's writing. I lived in Ireland for a couple of years, and was amazed at how different the accents can be just from county to county. Of course, the Northern Ireland accent is clearly distinguishable from Eire, due to the Scottish influence. But even in the 26 Counties of Eire, there are many variations, as you probably know. Luckily, I have a good ear.

    Then I lived in England for three years (many moons ago all of this, I must add), where I knew Scottish and English and other individuals fairly intimately, and although I loved their many accents, dialects, and slang words, I do not feel comfortable using them too liberally in my writing.

    I also have an unpublished novel set in Great Britain, and with one of my characters I use the Scottish dialect words very sparingly. Even then, I am concerned to get it quite right, not wanting to make anyone sound like a caricature, as you wisely said.

    My best wishes to you with your continuing work, and thanks again for a good posting.

    Saugerties, NY